In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof acknowledged that society often unfairly caricaturizes Christians as “rubes,” noting that in society “evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.” And yet a disproportionate number of aid workers he has met have been Christians. He noted, however, that “rube” is not always an unwarranted label, citing evangelical leaders who blame “9/11 on feminists, gays and lesbians, and doctors who perform abortions.” It is statements like this, made by Christians, that show Christianity to be hostile toward the culture and one another. This, however, begs the question: to what extent is this caricature true?
In Jesus Outside the Lines, Scott Sauls, senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, shows that this does not need to be the reality in the church, nor the culture’s perception of it. His thesis is that because Christians focus on their differences and spend an inordinate amount of time in polarizing discussions, rather than also discussing what they are for, the community itself becomes known by only what it is against, which creates a misperception of the Christian faith and Jesus himself. As Sauls points out time and again, Jesus lived a life that does not fit neatly into any single denomination, theological system, or political party. And if Christians are to be “conformed to the image of Jesus” (Romans 8:29), then they must assume that their life experiences are not exhaustive and their faith has room to grow. In practice, this means that Christians with different perspectives should be able to draw from the unifying love of Jesus in order to humbly listen to one another and destroy the “us vs. them” mentality so that they can navigate difficult conflicts together. In so doing, they will accurately portray God’s love to those around them.
One of the most admirable qualities of the book is that Sauls models this humble posture in his writing. Jesus Outside the Lines is not a book that “Bible-thumps” other Christians. He does not preach to the reader; rather, he preaches to himself — the best kind of preaching — and the reader is given intimate access to his thought processes. One example of this humility is his navigation through the apparent conflict between personal faith and institutional religion. There is a feeling that a person does not need the church in order to grow in one’s faith and to have spiritual discussions. Sauls explains that personal faith and church do not need to be at odds with each other. In this chapter, which alone is worth the price of the book, he shows that the Christian community and the individual need one another. Loving difficult people is Christlike, but it only happens when someone commits to Christian community. Moreover, the community, because of its imperfections, needs individual Christians in order to become more loving and genuine.
Is the church an institution of rubes? Hopefully not, but without the willingness to grow and dialogue with the “other side,” this perception will always be more accurate than it is wrong, and the church will fail in loving others well. Sauls invites the reader, whether a Christian or a friend of one, to be compelled by the Jesus of the Bible rather than by the Jesus of one’s own denomination, theological position, or political party. What the reader will find is that the Jesus of the Bible is infinitely more complex than the political and theological boundaries that the church has attempted to draw around him, and yet he is surprisingly simple